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This article begins a series profiling winners of the 2013 Outstanding Alumni Awards, which will be presented at the annual American Association of Community Colleges convention in April.
Reginald Dwayne Betts knew that a lot of people saw his decision to attend a community college “as a step backward instead of forward.” And he was determined to prove them wrong.
Betts may have felt like he had something to prove on a number of levels. When he enrolled at Prince George’s Community College (PGCC) in Maryland in the summer of 2005, he was far from a traditional student: He started college at age 25 after serving eight years in a Virginia state prison for carjacking.
R. Dwayne Betts on NPR
During his incarceration, reading and writing were a source of strength for Betts. Even then, he recognized the power of written expression. A native of Suitland, Md., Betts had been a good student and came to PGCC ready to learn and committed to making the most of this new chapter in his life.
While at the college, he developed meaningful relationships with faculty and became an important contributor to the local community. His life’s experiences thus far, coupled with the promise the future holds, underscore the belief that the best is yet to come.
By faith and faculty
Betts had tremendous respect for PGCC faculty and acknowledged that “they could have worked anywhere,” but they chose to teach at a community college.
One of the first faculty members he encountered on campus was Melinda Franklin. She talked to him about the rigor of the college’s Honors Academy, from which he received a full scholarship and mentoring to help him complete his education.
“That conversation gave me a different sense of how some professors approached their jobs,” Betts said. “It changed my perspective about what would be expected of me at a community college.”
In fact, Betts said that the most challenging and difficult course he took throughout college, which included attending both the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP), and Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, was at PGCC.
“It was the only class for which I had to consistently study,” Betts said. “Both the complexity of the course (the history of science) and the amount of reading were challenging.”
“It was fascinating. I’m not really into science, but I know a lot about it now,” he continued. “A great professor can make you fascinated about a subject in which you have no interest.”
Continuing his education opened up a whole new world for Betts. After graduating from PGCC in 2007 with an associate degree in general studies, he earned his bachelor’s degree in English from UMCP in 2009.
Betts’ first book, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison (Avery/Penguin), was published the same year. The next year he earned a master’s degree in creative writing from Warren Wilson, which he attended on a Holden Minority Scholarship. In addition, his collection of poetry, Shahid Reads His Own Palm (Alice James Books), was published. The following year Betts was awarded a Radcliffe Fellowship to Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Studies.
Betts’ essays, commentaries and poetry have been published widely. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and New England Review, earning him myriad honors, including an NAACP Image Award in 2010 for Outstanding Literary Work.
Along with these accomplishments, Betts is now a faculty member himself. He currently teaches in Massachusetts at Middlesex Community College, Emerson College and Bunker Hill Community College. His is trying to make a difference in students’ lives the same way his instructors did in his life.
From classroom to community
During his time at PGCC, Betts made numerous investments in his own education and while also investing in the youth of the community. He strived to make connections between the classroom and the community.
“My experiences at the community-college level taught me how to get the best out of the college experience,” Betts said. “It’s more than success in the classroom.”
At PGCC, Betts founded Young Men Read, a book club for African-American boys designed to help them envision a future beyond the boundaries of their day-to-day lives. He also taught poetry at several local public schools, including the Capital Day School and Duke Ellington High School in Washington, D.C. Betts has been in a poet-in-residence at Seed Public High School, Maya Angelou Public School and Dunbar High School in Washington.
Prisons in society
Betts also lectures extensively on the effects of mass incarceration on American society. He is a national spokesperson for the Campaign for Youth Justice, which is dedicated to ending the incarceration of youth under 18 in the adult criminal justice system.
Betts discusses his book, A Question of Freedom, on C-SPAN.
Last year Betts was appointed to the Obama Administration’s Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Further, he has written a nonfiction book, Circumference of a Prison, scheduled for publication later this year that explores the criminal justice system’s role in the everyday lives of Americans who have not committed crimes.
So what’s next for this husband and father of two sons? Betts plans to attend law school. As he prepares for this next stage in his life and career, he reflected on the important role community colleges continue to play in our society.
“Community colleges are integral to the future of this country,” Betts said. “They provide a gateway out of poverty and an opportunity to expand one’s horizons.”
“The doors are always open at community colleges,” he continued. “I wouldn’t have been accepted at UMCP initially, but the doors were wide open to me at PGCC regardless of my past experiences.”
R. Dwayne Betts on prison, college and poetry
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